Thursday, April 12, 2012

Raiders of the lost arts

Disaster struck on Easter morning when, with a strange, scary noise and an evil, smoky smell, the microwave oven in our rented beach place gave up the ghost once and for all. It was no big surprise, as it was so old the instructions were written in Latin, and its warming power was only slightly greater than that of the sun on our windowsill. But it was inconvenient all the same, as we suddenly found ourselves unable to do some simple, essential things until we re-learned some basics from long, long ago.
Like heating water on the stove. And warming mashed potatoes in the oven.
It got me thinking about a basic fact of life that I'm pretty sure has been going on for as long as people have existed. Because, as far as I can tell, every generation looks at the next one as a lazy, flaccid group of ineffectual nincompoops who don't really know how to do anything.
And that's on a good day.
I'm gonna call it the Generational Knowledge Differential, partly because that's sort of what it is, but mostly because saying it makes me sound kind of smart. Moreover, while I'm going to admit right from the top that the aforementioned GKD is a river that flows both ways, I'm going to content myself with listing some of the lost arts I still know how to do that younger folks don't, rather than sharing all the new-age things I've still failed to master.
After all, it's my column, and I can do what I want.
I grew up hearing tales about an era where people knew how to drive horse-drawn buggies, grind wheat into flour, build their own houses out of trees and rocks, and whittle useful, interesting things out of large chunks of wood.
My generation has in no way been as inventive and self-reliant as that, yet I've been startled--amazed, even--at the number of young adults who have never done important things like change a flat tire, read a roadmap or pop popcorn on top of the stove.
How about darning socks, finding a library book with an actual card catalog or doing long division with pencil and paper? Pay phones, phone books and collect calls are all apparently heading towards extinction, as are the yellow pages, checkbooks and photo albums.
Can you buy any kind of car with a manual transmission except for a few zoomy sports models?
When's the last time you heard the words "slide rule," "snow tires," "flash cube" or "record album."
Does anyone under the age of 50 own an actual dictionary or encyclopedia?
Does anybody know how to whistle anymore? Or unplug a drain or change the oil on a car?
An entire generation is growing up without ever hearing the sounds of a typewriter, a busy signal, a gas station bell or a phonograph record with a scratch in it.
What, by the way, is a phonograph?
Or a movie projector, transistor radio or slide projector?
How about jump-starting a car, tying a necktie, building a treehouse or operating a bottle opener?
And really, does anyone ever say, "I don't know" anymore? Or do they just google it with a hand-held device that's a gazillion times more powerful than the computers that sent men to the moon?
Now, don't get me wrong.
It's not all bad.
Nobody ever really enjoyed darning socks, and I never really did figure out how to use a slide rule. Often as not, I burned the popcorn.
But it's interesting, all the same, to think of all those lost arts that have disappeared over time.
And I could probably think of more, but I gotta go.
We need to buy a new microwave.

1 comment:

  1. On the female side - I remember tatting. Every woman knew how to tatt or was it tat? I still have a set of pillowcases from my aunt. She made them especially for my "hope chest". Another: hope chest! Your articles are always wonderful. Entertaing, sweet and make us think.